People in unincorporated communities need broadband access just as much as people living in cities do, but are disadvantaged from the organizational structures and funding opportunities that incorporated areas have to connect residents.
Each state has its own rules governing incorporated places’ establishment and operation. Incorporated places, which in most states include cities, towns, villages, and boroughs, may be recognized by name and operate their own governance structure. However, some are not. In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau published a report showing that unincorporated places comprise most of the landmass in the U.S. and house around 36.3 percent of the population. Many have the same characteristics as cities with residents, businesses, and governance structures all their own.
It is well known that rural areas with low population density are among the most expensive and difficult to reach with wired broadband service. Oftentimes, unincorporated areas have these same features. Population density in cities is 46 times higher than in unincorporated areas. Rural areas persistently lack any wireline infrastructure at all. Even if the network is built, it may cost a resident several thousand dollars for a provider to determine whether it is feasible to go the last mile to connect their home. While satellite is widely available in rural areas, it is often expensive, unreliable, and lower quality compared to wired cable and fiber connections.
Strategy #1: Counties can take the lead on collecting preliminary data.
Counties have an important role to play since unincorporated areas lie outside of cities and towns, but may still exist within a county. People living in unincorporated communities may not have a governing entity to collect first-hand data on broadband access like city-dwellers have. Counties can fill in those gaps in information.
Eagle County, Colorado, for example, sought feedback from residents and businesses operating in unincorporated parts of the county in December 2020. In August 2020, the Arkansas Legislative Council made 30 grants of up to $75,000 available for cities, counties, incorporated towns, and unincorporated communities to conduct the business studies necessary for federal and state broadband funding applications. Including unincorporated areas in funding opportunities is an important way to ensure that all communities have a chance to secure the resources they need to improve broadband. In December, Little River and Perry Counties were both awarded funding through the program.
Strategy #2: State governments can expand existing utility easements to include broadband.
State governments have taken the lead on improving deployment in rural areas by expanding existing utility easements to include broadband services, allowing for faster and less expensive deployment in unincorporated areas. For example, in Colorado, electric cooperatives with an electricity easement may also install broadband through the existing easement. In November 2020, Pennsylvania passed a law allowing their rural electric cooperatives the same privilege. In Mississippi, a law expanding existing cooperative easements to fiber-optic services was passed as part of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) grant program. In 2019, Georgia passed a law that expanded cooperative easements to also allow for broadband service. In the 2019-2020 legislative session, Minnesota considered legislation that would have the same effect. Clearly, this rule has had a huge impact on broadband expansion in rural communities, expanding the ability of telephone and electric cooperatives who have a local customer base and first-hand insight to provide residents with broadband.
Strategy #3: The FCC or state governments should publish pole location data.
Even though pole location information is essential for providers connecting to residences in rural areas, neither states nor the federal government have a public map of pole locations. Exploratory costs are passed to consumers, who are asked to pay thousands of dollars for a surveyor to identify pole locations and give them to the provider who then determines whether a connection is feasible. The cost is $10,000 for 40 miles (or about $250 a mile) and consultants generally require a minimum of 40 miles to do the work.
Charting pole locations is the first of many steps to connectivity for rural households since providers then use the information to determine whether it is feasible to connect to the locations. Rural residents in areas that the FCC has marked as “served” may actually need to pay thousands of dollars to determine whether service can actually be initiated and then pay full price for the service, assuming service is possible.
States or the federal government should collect location information from pole owners. Making that information available could drastically reduce introductory costs for consumers and providers to connect rural areas. For unincorporated communities that may not have the state recognition that their city counterparts have, this is one of several ways to help accelerate deployment for residents and businesses who need high-quality connectivity.